Paige Madison, Sparking Interest About the Past

Some of us are intrinsically fascinated by fossils. We have been reciting dinosaur names, memorizing geologic timescales, and finding joy in natural history museums for as long as we can remember. I am absolutely one of those people. I was enchanted by fossils early, quickly—and without a single thought as to why.


This captivation-from-birth phenomenon occasionally puts me at a disadvantage in communicating science. What, exactly, is it about the dusty old bones that I find so intriguing, I often wonder? The answer to this question sometimes difficult to articulate. Unlike some of my friends who are forced on a consistent basis to explain and defend why rat bones or bird fossils matter, I often fall back into my comfort zone of thinking my subject matter, the fossils of human ancestors, speaks for itself.


But a fascination with fossils does not afflict the entire population equally, of course. Some people are excited by dusty old bones while others find joy in studying rockets ships, distant planets, or the depths of the ocean. I often wonder how I can best communicate with these audiences, those who are not intrinsically interested. If I struggle to article what first got me interested, how can I effectively communicate my passion to someone else? How can I (or we as a community) make palaeontology attractive to a range of audiences? What tools can we use to light the initial spark of enthusiasm?


At the Popularizing Palaeontology workshop held in December 2017, this question of which strategies can help spark people’s interest came up. While I don’t know for sure, my guess is many of us gathered in that room suffer from this same disadvantage—we are those who have this innate fascination. We are not the majority. So how do overcome this to reach audiences of those who are not necessarily interested? A few ideas were put forward at the meeting.


First and foremost, there is the power of the dinosaur as a window into prehistoric worlds. We know that dinosaurs capture peoples’ imaginations in powerful ways. But palaeontology is about so much more than massive, impressive extinct beasts like Tyrannosaurus rex, members of workshop complained. What about the fossils of ancient snails, trilobites, or pigeons, for example? These creatures also hold important knowledge about the past. Some science communicators use dinosaurs as gateway fossil of sorts, one that sparks an audience’s interest. Later, once the audience is paying attention, we try to show them that palaeolontology is so much more than Tyrannosaurus. But this second step is often difficult to accomplish.


In my own work, which is focused on human evolution, I use a different strategy, often falling back on the power of a face. The stare from the hollow eyes of our ancestors—the Gibraltar Neanderthal, for example, or the scouring brow of a Homo erectus fossil—reveals a creature that exhibits both a glimmer of humanness and a distinct otherness. Sometimes this fossil gaze can catch peoples’ attention and light the initial spark. But his method is limited as well; we don’t always have the face of ancient fossils, and a Neanderthal face doesn’t get us any closer to communicating the importance of those important snails or pigeons.


A different idea was brought up during the workshop, an alternative that struck me as a powerful tool: using the concept of deep time to spark peoples’ imaginations. This strategy moves away from the fossil itself, instead painting a picture of the deep, geologic timescale that has housed so many creatures and seen countless extinctions and massive evolutionary shifts.


I find this approach fascinating, and it is one that I have never considered. Can something so foundational to our understanding of ancient life also be an important tool to communicate science? Deep time reminds us that there are so many lost worlds of strange creatures, that we are just a speck in the most recent point of time scale, that an enormous amount of time has passed before our potentially fleeting evolutionary moment as humans. For these reasons and many more, deep time seems to be a strategy to spark the fire that is worth pursuing.


As many science communicators already know, this strategy of communicating deep time is not about a number. Indeed, speaking in terms of millions and billions of years involves numbers that are distant to for the human brain to conceptualize. As Charles Darwin admitted in the Origin of Species, “What infinite number of generations, which the mind cannot grasp, must have succeeded each other in the long roll of years.”


Visuals can help communicate the vastness of deep time, filling in the illustration where the numbers simply can’t. Upon exploring this topic further, it seems there have been many interesting art exhibits around the world that have focused on deep time. This is one of the values of having meetings like Popularizing Paleontology, with a mixture of scientists, artists, and historians. Those of us who are not visually creative stand to gain a tremendous amount by asking questions alongside artists. Metaphors, too, help paint a picture while reigning in the immensity of this stretch of time. As a result of the workshop, I am working on developing fun and interesting metaphors that plot human evolution on a more relatable time scale.


Now of course, there are a series of precursory questions that are worth bearing in mind as consider this issue of which strategy is useful to get people excited about the prehistoric past. These questions include: “Should we? Why should we?” –And so on. These are much more difficult questions to answer, it seems to me. But they are important to keep in the back of a science communicator’s mind. For now, though, I am working on quieting that part of my brain that contemplates those issues in order to think more creatively about strategies to communicate the fascinating world of fossils to new and diverse audiences.